This Makes No Sense: US To Ban Laptops On All Flights From Europe

from the yes,-but-wait-what? dept

Earlier this year we wrote about the nonsensical move by the Department of Homeland Security to ban laptops and tablets in the cabin on flights from a bunch of cities in the Middle East. The rumored reason was discoveries that terrorists had learned how to make bombs out of laptops. As we noted, this made almost no sense at all when you challenged any of the assumptions. But, never let logic and reason get in the way of a bit of inane security theater. Because now Homeland Security is about to announce that it’s now banning laptops in the cabins on all flights from Europe (it’s unclear if this will also apply on flights from the US to Europe, but it seems likely that European airports will reciprocate).

While this does answer one of the questions raised by the original ban (“why won’t potential terrorists just fly out of other countries?”) it still raises a host of other questions. Again: why won’t this apply to flights from other countries? Or domestic flights? Or all flights? But, really, that just raises an even larger issue, which is that if you want to protect 100% of all flights 100% of the time from ever having a problem in which people might die, the answer is ground all flights and never let anyone fly anywhere ever. Problem solved. Of course, the cost of such a solution would be horrendous — which is why we don’t do it. But that’s the key issue: all of these things involve tradeoffs. All too frequently, it appears that government officials — especially those on the national security side of things — don’t care at all about the tradeoffs. They just care about blocking any possible attack no matter how unlikely or how remote the chance of such an attack might be, and without any consideration of the costs and inconveniences to everyone else. And, yes, it’s reasonable to point out that a single attack would be very, very costly as well. And there’s clearly a reason to protect heavily against attacks. But there’s still a balance.

And there must be a better solution. If laptops are a risk factor, it’s difficult to see how putting them in the cargo hold — where there’s no one to stop a fire — is a better solution. Hell, most current airline rules require passengers to store all lithium ion batteries in carry-on luggage for exactly that reason. Putting them all in the hold would seem to increase the risk of accidental explosions and fires that might cause just as much, if not more, damage. And, of course, forcing people to give up their laptops has a secondary (but very serious) problem: for anyone traveling with sensitive information (lawyers, doctors, reporters, business execs, public officials, etc.) giving up your laptop is a massive security risk.

In other words, the “cost” of this solution is ridiculously high for a very large number of people, for whom flying to or from Europe has just become a massive inconvenience and tremendously problematic to justify given the personal risk. And for what? Vague and unclear threats about “possible” exploding laptops? I’m sure that no one wants to be on a flight with a laptop that will explode (whether on purpose or not), but there has to be a better way to tackle the problem than doing a blanket ban on laptops in the cabin. And, yes, perhaps this sounds like saying nerd harder back to Homeland Security, but this is a case where there clearly are more reasonable tradeoffs that can and should be explored, well short of inconveniencing everyone and creating a very different (but very serious) kind of security threat by forcing people to give up their laptops.

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Comments on “This Makes No Sense: US To Ban Laptops On All Flights From Europe”

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Lisa Westveld (profile) says:

It makes sense...

It makes sense to ban those laptops as it would encourage people to use Cloud services instead. That way, they could just use a simple laptop with a web browser, fly to the USA with the laptop as baggage and once in the USA, they would use the Cloudapps instead.
But Cloudapps often have servers located inside the USA as they are likely hosted by Google, Microsoft/Azure of Amazon. It means that the USA can also listen to all the web traffic of all those foreigners visiting the USA and gain access to an enormous amount of data. All in all, it allows the USA to better spy on the whole world…

Removing my aluminum foil hat now. Just wanted to have some crazy thoughts for a change. Then again, how crazy are they? đŸ™‚

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Cornucopia of excuses, or not

DHS: We don’t discuss process and methods, so we cannot tell you why banning laptops on planes is relevant.

Passengers: It’s an 8 or more hour flight, I choose to use it as another time for work, or personal entertainment, just why are you banning my laptop?

DHS: We don’t discuss process and methods, so we cannot tell you why banning laptops on planes is relevant.

Passengers: The whole a laptop or cellphone can connect with the planes navigation or flight systems has been debunked, and if not why hasn’t that been fixed?

DHS: We don’t discuss process and methods, so we cannot tell you why banning laptops on planes is relevant.

Passengers: Are you trying to make us engage with the in-flight entertainment system, which costs more money?

DHS: We don’t discuss process and methods, so we cannot tell you why banning laptops on planes is relevant.

Passengers: Are you a bot?

DHS: We don’t discuss process and methods, so we cannot tell you why banning laptops on planes is relevant.

Anonymous Coward says:

obey your betters

[]] ” But that’s the key issue: all of these things involve tradeoffs. All too frequently, it appears that government officials … don’t care at all about the tradeoffs. “

You misunderstand our U.S. government system. Our “government officials” get to decide the “tradeoffs” because they are so much smarter than you, me and the general populace.

The U.S. Constitution expressly gives federal politicians, bureaucrats (armed or otherwise) and regulators great powers to force Americans to accept their arbitrary choices of tradeoffs in all manner of normal citizen activity. You’ve previously expressed strong support for this supposed broad Constitutional authority of federal regulators/overseers — is there some doubt now about such authority & discretion? The FAA, DHS, etc. are just doing their Constitutional duty in this case, right?

What exactly does the Constitution say about this kind of stuff?

bob says:

Re: obey your betters

I understand the need for someone in those positions to make a determination like a laptop ban. I just wish they would also explain why with evidence. If they can’t produce convincing evidence then the ban should be smacked down.

Yep the government does have a reason for the ban, it just may not be a justifiable one for the rest of the American people.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: obey your betters

“I just wish they would also explain why with evidence”

I believe they have, and the explanation is “we came across a plan to put a bomb in a laptop, so now we’re banning all laptops from cabin space”.

This is the same rationale as with taking shoes off, banning liquids, etc. Some failed plot has been uncovered, so everyone has to be inconvenienced just in case something gets through. Which would be fine if these things were effective and actually did something other than security theatre.

I’ve long said that if this is the way they’re going to react to every possible threat, I almost want someone to work out how to put a bomb in a passport just to watch their heads spin. The actual terrorists are laughing their asses off already.

Whether or not it’s constitutional, it’s highly reactionary and will almost certainly lead to more economic damage (businessmen being unable to do productive work during long flights, etc) than prevented security risks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: obey your betters

The ban also follows the partisan international conflict on information.

By banning laptops from Europe you also avoid that pesky data deal with Merkel. Merkel is against data-freedom. She is trying to force a disgusting thing like “privacy” onto land of freedom. Yeah!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: obey your betters

I almost want someone to work out how to put a bomb in a passport just to watch their heads spin.

Looking at my passport, there is a centre page marked PUCE ELECTRONIQUE, which is considerably thicker than the other pages. It has a warning that this contains an electronic device.

Now, with a bit of finagling, it should be possible to replace the contents with some sort of explosive or incendiary material which could/would be triggered by the border security scanners once in their hands.

Is this sufficient for you as a possible example of turning a passport into a explosive or incendiary device? If so, then you could send this to the DHS and get them to dispence with passports.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 obey your betters

I said almost.. Sadly, I need my passport to travel to work every day, so that becoming a reality is not something I really want to see. But, it’s an interesting thought experiment – as these people panic every time someone works out how to put a potential explosive in something, how will they react to something they cannot ban?

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: obey your betters

While the Constitution does in some cases authorizes the Government some powers, it does more to limit the powers the Government may exercise. Not being a Constitutional lawyer, I cannot say which powers the Government are erroneously overstepping, but the idea of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness comes to mind, and telling people they cannot have their toys on a plane seems limiting to me. Especially when it involves coercing other countries to implement them, just because.

There are already protocols to check laptops for explosives, are they saying those protocols aren’t good enough? The number of times they have failed inspections is telling. On the other hand, just how many laptops have exploded in mid air?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: obey your betters

you don’t need to be a Constitutional lawyer to understand the Constitution; it’s a relatively brief document written in the plain language of its time, and intended for average citizens to understand.

Only Congress may enact “Constitutional” laws (in limited areas). Congress can never delegate law making authority to any other person(s) or agencies.
“Regulations” are laws — deceptively named to fool people into thinking specific Congressional approval is unnecessary to impose them upon the public.
Thus, the DHS itself has zero legal authority to impose any regulations/bans/commands/rules/laws upon the public.

Politicians fool most of the people most of the time

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Stolen Laptop reports on the rise

Look for a laptop that the hard drive can be easily slid in/out in a “tray”. Many business laptops have this “feature”. I’m sure that this will go away soon, just like removable batteries in phones was most likely asked for by the government.

Laptop hard drive tray:

/removes tin foil hat

Anonymous Coward says:

If you really want to destroy a plane mid-flight you will

and there is NO way for any group designated with the responsibility of protecting those flights from ever stopping such an attack.

Hence this whole guff about banning laptops from in-passenger use is all about the existential control of people’s lives. It has no other purpose than to say that those authorising this are bullies and that they want their servants to be just as big bullies.

When planes start falling out of the sky randomly, with all these security measures in place, we’ll see a much stronger ramping up of the “we are doing this for your own protection” protocols to further control people’s lives.

Here’s the funny thing, most people will go along with it and see no problem with it and support it wholeheartedly because they want someone else to take responsibility for their lives as long as they have their bread and circuses.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

It makes perfect sense -- once you think about the reason

Stopping attacks isn’t the reason — because a laptop case stuffed with explosives could be detonated in the cargo hold just as easily as it could be in the passenger cabin. So this is just a ruse.

This measure is designed to force laptops out of the hands of passengers and thus remove control over their physical security. Laptops in luggage are much easier to clone and/or to subvert via software, firmware, or hardware — since their owners won’t be present to notice or protest. And of course once a laptop is thoroughly backdoored, it will likely provide access to every network it’s ever connected to, every web site/mail server/etc. account its owner ever uses, and so on.

Do the math: look at the number of passengers annually, guesstimate the percentage bringing laptops, estimate the number of networks/number of accounts, and multiply. Even if you choose conservative numbers, the total will be significant.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: It makes perfect sense -- once you think about the reason

Agreed. Not that it is actually safer, given your scenario (UPS, FedEx, and others are prone to government cooperation in ways one does not like to think about), laptops could be sent overnight to ones destination.

Maybe better to send data via VPN to private encrypted servers, and then carry or send a wiped laptop with the intent to re-image at your destination. DD is your friend.

Then again, 8 or 10 hours in the air that could be productive, now isn’t.

Joe P says:

Re: Re: It makes perfect sense -- once you think about the reason

Decent high speed connections in Europe aren’t too hard to come by… reloading a laptop from a private server might work in some cases… But in many instances trying to reload a laptop is well beyond the technical capabilities of most people.

It would be cheaper and easier to carry all your data on an encrypted USB drive in your carry-on… Then the laptop just becomes an OS with apps and no useful data. (make sure to securely wipe the temp files, of course) Or, a bootable USB disk (Windows-to-Go, Linux Distro, etc) from USB would work too… Either is probably a much more manageable, and time efficient solution for the average traveler …

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: It makes perfect sense -- once you think about the reason

You echo my sentiments exactly.

That is what I do when I go on road trips all over North America. I wipe my phones and laptops before crossing the border into Canada or United States to avoid any problems with anything I don’t know about that could get me arrested and/or denied entry.

With three phones and two laptops, you are bound to get sent to secondary inspection, so wiping my devices before crossing the border into either the United States or Canada is pretty much a must for me

My_Name_Here says:

Re: It makes perfect sense -- once you think about the reason

“Stopping attacks isn’t the reason — because a laptop case stuffed with explosives could be detonated in the cargo hold just as easily as it could be in the passenger cabin”

You would be correct, except for a couple of things:

Checked bags are generally subject to automated inspection (especially on international flights to the US), that includes sniffing for explosives, is both x-ray-ed and “3D imaged” and checked again.

You can bet that every bag with a laptop in it is subject to a more complete inspection. The potential here is that they can spend a little extra time and effort to assure that it is just a laptop without any modifications. That could include wiping it to check for explosives, imaging the unit in detail, and so on. Basically, they could compare a scan of the laptop with what they know to be normal, and flag any unit that has been modified (has extra wires, example, or the battery blob isn’t the right size or density).

So yes, if a bomb isn’t detected through all of this, then it could be remotely operated while in the cargo hold. Even then, you have to consider these things:

A bomb in a laptop would be relatively small. You wouldn’t be talking blow the plane to pieces power, you would be talking more of a rip a hole in the fusliage and hope for it to keep going from there. In no small part, that would work best if the terrorist could place such a device in a significant area right against the walls of the cockpit.

When the laptop is in checked luggage, it is padded by other luggage, then padded by a metal AKE container, and then constrained by the airspace between that container and the walls of the plane. A small explosive device might make a bit of a mess, but it may not have enough power to actually impact the flight of the plane.

So even if a laptop device makes it past inspection, it’s a whole lot less likely to do enough damage to pull a plane out of the air.

The rest of your post is tin foil hat stuff. They could accomplish the same thing just by running free wi-fi portals that spread malware. No need to go through a huge terrorist scare to get there.

Anonymous Coward says:

To me this makes perfect sense and is a natural progression on the original ban (note: that doesn’t mean I agree with it just not surprised).

Considering the amount of border device searches and how much they are increasing, why you would bother trying to enter the country with anything resembling an electronic device is what doesn’t make sense. Especially when looking at occupations that require confidentiality such as journalists, NASA scientists, and so on.

I understand why people need to for work/entertainment/etc but its just looking like buying a cheapy phone/laptop once landed is a better option. Or posting encrypted devices, which will probably also be searched.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

With a phone, just do a Factory Data Reset before passing through Customs, and wiping your phone clean.

With a computer, just keep your important data elsehwere. There are several home broadband providers that have service tiers that will let you run servers. Just set up a VPN on your home computer and keep your files there and access them remotely.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There is no way they can know the phone was wiped if you install a few applications after resetting your phone. There is no way they can know if and when you did a Factory Data Reset on your phone.

Just make sure to reinstall some apps, such as your GPS applications or stuff like that so that they will not be able to tell that you wiped the phone.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“It looks like Canadian airports just got a huge new customer base.”

Or even Cuban or Mexican airports. With US-cuba commercial flights available, someone could fly to Havana, if going to Europe, since flights are available to virtually anywhere in Europe from Cuba. Travelling through Havana for the purpose of changing planes is allowed for American citizens.

For travellers from the Southern states, I could see them transiting Havana to get to Europe. I think Miami-Havana flights are going to get a new customer base.

In short, Canadian, Cuban, and Mexican airports just all got a new customer base.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

With US-cuba commercial flights available, someone could fly to Havana

Huh? That defeats the point.

The problem is at the US end. You do not want to be on-board a flight that takes off from or lands in the US. Therefore you wouldn’t want to take a US-Cuba flight.

You want to be driving/walking/boating across the US border, not flying.

David says:

"Secondary problem"?

And, of course, forcing people to give up their laptops has a secondary (but very serious) problem: for anyone traveling with sensitive information (lawyers, doctors, reporters, business execs, public officials, etc.) giving up your laptop is a massive security risk.

Let’s not fool ourselves here. The baggage checkin and more particularly the baggage checkout lines are under control of the airlines and the TSA. This is for saving the agents any discussions about handing over laptops for cloning and bulk processing.

The NSA wants a copy of all data entering and leaving the country, "encrypted" or not. And people are getting increasingly squeamish about handing over their devices, so if you want to routinely hook up everyone’s devices, you need personnel to do all that and you really can’t afford to deal with all those pesky humans.

Smartphones have enough connectivity that they’ll be sucked dry by the time you leave the IMSI catchers in the cabin but you need to cater for all that offline stuff.

And if it can’t be searched with the standard stuff within a minute: so sorry, madam, it would appear that we have misplaced your luggage.

Who wants to bet that luggage arriving late will not happen a whole lot more with the new rules in place?

Who wants to bet that there will not be a large increase of jobs for airport based TSA personnel?

I mean, do the math: they wanted devices not in cargo at first to avoid uncontrollable battery fires. Now that they are fearing actual bombs, they feel better by putting them in cargo? So they expect the bomb builders to do a worse job than the laptop manufacturers at creating explosive devices?

David says:

Here is the rationale in a nutshell.

NSA: we can now siphon off all data of all laptops at checkin and have it decrypted until touchdown (or at least decide that a piece of luggage is going to be mysteriously delayed if the process does not go as desired). Any problems to be expected?

TSA: The passengers won’t like it?

NSA: Find a solution.

And here we are.

PaulT (profile) says:

I say this every time something like this happens. But, I think the only reason why such terrorists haven’t done something recently that will really kill a significant number of people (such as detonating a bomb in the security queue, which usually has way more people than any single flight) is because they’re still too busy laughing at the ease at which their goals are being achieved without having to do that.

Anonymous Coward says:

It works like this:

1) If passenger is on spy priority target list then.
2) Direct luggage to spy hacking room.
3) Register all target device IDs for tracking purposes.
4) Take copies of entire content of all target storage devices for detailed analysis.
5) Implant appropriate malware on all target devices.

Meanwhile the world’s disgust at US’ descent into fascism continues to grow.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

If that is the case, I could see Macs becoming more popular. The makers of popular software products will just have to start making Mac versions of their products.

Windows runs more than 90 percent of the world’s computers because all of the top business programs are only written for Windows. Programs like WordPerfect, Office, Lotus 1-2-3, Quicken, and many others were only written for Windows or DOS.

Since Mac OS X does have its own built-in wiping program, someone would use that their Mac, wipe the disk clean, and then reinstall MacOS and all their programs, and that would get rid of any malware the government put on the computer. You just have to boot the computer from another disk, to execute the wiping program.

Whether you are using windows or Mac, you will need to have a second external HD to boot the computer from to execute the wipe the main HD. This means that you will have to get a 220v power supply, once in Europe, so you can plug your external HD into a power source. You will need an external HD for both wiping the disk, and restoring the operating system.

As far as I know, the plugs in mainland Europe and in the middle east are different than Britain, even though the current is the same, so you may need one power supply for Brtain, and another for mainland Europe.

Anonymous Howard II says:


…anyone boarding a flight in Europe has to have their laptop or tablet scanned seperately to all their other carry-on stuff.

Are we saying these scanners aren’t capable of detecting a bomb? Why then are we waiting in huge queues for these scanners, with staff grumpily rearranging the stuff you put in the tray because no matter how you put it in you did it wrong, miserly 100ml fluid limits (although you can take literally anything you want if you pay inflated airport shop prices), and snarky questioning as to whether you need both of those prescription medications?

Anonymous Coward says:

Internet of Unsecured Things

Surprised you don’t remember your own stories. This is obviously due to the fact that it’s possible to connect one’s wifi up to the plane’s internal network and start raising and lowering the flaps, in flight.
You guys ran a story on someone who’d claimed to have done it a year or two ago, remember?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Internet of Unsecured Things

Actually, if you read the article linked, you’ll find that this has nothing to do with the reasoning behind this ban:

“The ban was based on U.S. fears that terrorists have found a way to convert laptops into bombs capable of bringing down an airplane.”

It’s about the supposed ability to turn devices into bombs (which is why them still being allowed in the cargo hold is still so questionable), not anything to do with comms ability previously reported.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Internet of Unsecured Things

The trouble is that a lot of business people out there, the younger ones, don’t know how to do anything without a computer. That is why banning them from travelling laptops would never work. That is likely why they only banned them from the cabin.

When I was in college in the 1990s, I had a few young professors to whom handwritten work was foreign. The came of age doing everything on a computer.

When it comes to doing work, they would be lost without their computers.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Internet of Unsecured Things

The problem here is that you are forgetting that phones are computers.

An Android phone is a Linux computer, therefore you can install the same types of software (SSH, nmap, hacking tools etc) on a phone. Therefore a phone is just as effective a hacking tool for that type of intrusion as a laptop.

And they are still allowing phones on.

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